It was hot even for late May, and it was still hot at dusk on this particular Friday.
Outside the gymnasium of the Acorn Junior High School on Elm Street, 162 students gathered excitedly. Tonight they would graduate from eighth grade, meaning they would, in the fall, join other eighth graders from across Acorn County at the comprehensive high school. Ahead of them were high-school sports, dating, part-time jobs, proms, a nationally recognized marching band, driving to and from school, and extended weekend curfews at home. At the conclusion of tonight’s ceremony, after principal Garland Shoemake had handed each of them a diploma, they would launch from being older children to young adults.
The ceremony was starting later because the old gymnasium, built in 1941, had no air conditioning. Any cooling came from big fans that attempted to circulate air but actually just circulated smells from decades of sweat-stained bleachers and old varnished wood from a basketball court that creaked and moaned with every dribble. The old gymnasium—and the junior high school—had been Acorn’s county high school until 1955, when the new high school was built. That year, the junior high became home for the Acorn School District’s sixth through eighth graders. The night had a nostalgic feel to it—many of the parents of this year’s graduates had attended high school at the old school building; some had even played basketball in this very gymnasium.
The 162 students were dressed in their Sunday best. The girls wore white knee-length dresses with red or black ribbons in their hair; the boys wore black pants, white shirts, and red ties. The color scheme was no accident. The red, black, and white of the Acorn Junior High Bullpups matched appropriately with the red, black, and white of the Acorn County Bulldogs and the red, black, and white of the University of Georgia Bulldogs, who played in Athens, about an hour’s drive to the east.
Organizing the students into alphabetized single-file lines fell to the eighth-grade teachers, and they were having quite a time bringing order to the excitement. There was the occasional push or shove or farting sound blown into a boy’s crooked elbow. The girls, already acting more mature, stood with arms crossed, shaking heads and counting the days until they could be free of these goofy boys and date high-school juniors who could already drive.
Missing all this preceremony excitement was eighth grader Frank Wilcox. He stood backstage with eighth-grade sponsor and English teacher Mrs. Mary Daniel, Principal Shoemake, and Superintendent of Schools Clarence Lambert. Roger Williams, pastor at the First Baptist Church of Acorn, stood with the small ensemble. As the adults talked among themselves, Frank could feel his teeth chattering. It was a nervous tic that no one could see, and he was glad for that. Frank hated when his nerves led to chattering teeth, especially on a hot May evening.
Pastor Williams leaned toward him. “Are you ready?” he whispered. Frank hardly looked up and said that he was ready. “You’ll do just fine,” the pastor said, patting Frank on the back. Frank was glad Pastor Williams was on the graduation stage because Frank knew he needed the Lord’s favor right now, and he figured his pastor had a direct hotline.
Superintendent Lambert, with his paunch and professorial manner, said, “You’ll do fine, son. Your mama used to give fine talks in church about missions, and I’ll bet you are just as good a speaker.” Mr. Lambert had served as a deacon and Sunday School superintendent at the First Baptist Church.
Despite the encouragement, Frank wasn’t altogether ready for this evening. And his teeth weren’t chattering because he was the one student selected by Mrs. Daniel to speak on behalf of the other 162 students. His teeth were chattering because Frank had a secret.
Frank had two speeches. There was the one Mrs. Daniel had written for him, and it was the one he had given during the graduation rehearsal earlier that day. Then there was the speech he had written because, well, he was the one doing the speaking. The way he saw it, why did a rising high-school ninth grader need a teacher to write his speech for him? The problem was that everyone, including Tom and Janet Wilcox (his parents) and R. C. Wilcox (his beloved grandfather), all had heard Mrs. Daniel’s speech and thought that would be the one he would give.
There was also the issue of his maternal grandmother, Carolyn Holmes, his mema, who taught seventh-grade math and science at the school and was one of Mrs. Daniel’s good friends. His mema and Mary Daniel had served for years together in the local chapter of the Georgia Educators Association and the Acorn Garden Club. His mema, too, had heard him rehearse Mrs. Daniel’s speech.
But, to be honest, it was his mema who planted the idea for the secret, second speech. Upon hearing his rehearsal one Wednesday after school, she had said, almost to herself but loud enough for Frank to hear, “I don’t know why Mary couldn’t let you write your own speech.”
Now, as he stood surrounded by the small quartet of adults, he stared through a slit in the old stage curtain. There must have been four hundred people sitting in rows of metal chairs on the old gymnasium floor. A few other renegades, including the Piper clan, sat in the old bleachers. Frank reached into his left pocket and felt the folded speech written by Mrs. Daniel; he then reached into his right pocket and felt the folded speech that he had written.
He was going to stand up and give one of the speeches. However, even at this eleventh hour, he had not yet made up his mind about what to do. He looked at his sweet mama’s face in the crowd and tried to imagine her reaction if he read the self-written speech. He might not live to attend Charlie Keller’s sleepover following the graduation ceremony.
Mrs. Daniel touched him on the shoulder and motioned for him to take his seat on the stage. As he and the adults took their seats, the curtain opened, and the famous high-school band’s ensemble, the Red Peppers, began playing the familiar “Pomp and Circumstance.” His classmates began marching in from the rear of the gymnasium.
Watching his friends enter the gymnasium, he felt a familiar pull on his emotions. About two dozen of these friends had been alongside him since kindergarten at the First Baptist Church; some of them had been friends before that through Sunday School at the church. He could still remember birthday parties when they were all very small children. Charlie Keller had always been his friend like the way a brother or sister has just always been there. Their friendship was born from the fact that their mothers, Janet Wilcox and Midge Keller, had been best friends growing up in Acorn. These people walking into the gymnasium weren’t just friends; they were family, having all grown up together in this wonderful place called Acorn. Frank knew to his core that once they got to high school, things would be different as they fell in among 150 or so other rising ninth graders from across the county.
As he watched his friends take their seats, Frank also did not feel particularly worthy to be on the stage delivering this short speech. He was here only because of an inexplicable string of events that had begun in the fourth grade, taken root in his seventh-grade English class, and culminated with his being chosen as editor of the school yearbook in the eighth grade. Mrs. Daniel, as the class sponsor, was also responsible for the yearbook.
Frank knew that had the class elected its speaker, he would not have been the one chosen. His lifelong friend Charlie was the most popular boy in his class, was a better-than-average athlete, was one of the top academic students, and was known for his sense of humor and fun-loving way of agitating the teachers. The agitation had led to him setting primary school records for hallway spankings, which only increased his celebrity. Charlie easily could have been chosen as the class speaker.
Lester Freemont could have been chosen on academics alone. There was no boy—not one—who had scored better than Lester Freemont when each semester’s report cards were handed out. And it wasn’t just one year. No, Lester Freemont had been king of academics from the day in first grade when students took their first spelling test.
Pete Yancey could have been chosen on friendliness and kindness alone. Pete was popular because he didn’t care whether he was popular or not; Pete’s mission every day of school was to be kind and helpful to everyone around him—no matter how much anyone had or didn’t have. Pete was happy and content just being Pete. Students respected him.
Frank spotted Steve Dickson sitting near the front of the auditorium. Steve Dickson sure as hell wouldn’t have been chosen to speak, Frank thought. Steve had left a trail of tears in second grade, announcing to everyone in Mrs. Edith Wright’s class that there was no Santa Claus.
There was Van Piper, who was just mean as hell, and everyone knew it and everyone stayed away from him. It was a miracle that Van was even at this graduation, but there he was, sitting close to his smaller sidekick, Travis Jackson. Neither of those two would have been chosen to speak unless they had scared everyone into voting for them.
Any number of girls could have given this speech. There were so many bright, pretty, poised girls in Frank’s class that any vote would have likely involved a dozen or so runoff elections to choose just one of them. Perhaps that was why none of them had been chosen. It would have been too complicated and stirred up too many angry mamas coming to the school on behalf of their daughters.
And then Frank spotted his friend Wendell Mann. That made him smile. He wasn’t sure if Wendell would have been asked to give this speech, but he knew one thing: there was no better encourager or friend than Wendell Mann. And Wendell was the only one in the audience—the only one—who knew Frank’s secret of the two speeches. As their eyes locked, a smile exploded on Wendell’s happy-go-lucky face—a smile that caused Frank to smile back even as his teeth chattered so badly he bit his tongue.
Students seated, the Red Peppers concluded the musical introduction, and all eyes turned to the podium as Mrs. Mary Daniel stood to begin the ceremony.
Frank Wilcox closed his eyes and breathed deep.
Van Piper blew a fart into his elbow, creating muffled giggles as Mrs. Mary Daniel congratulated the graduates. The graduation ceremony had begun.